Like Keystone in the U.S., Canada's Pipeline to Pacific Is High-Voltage Politics

Despite the Harper government's approval, the Northern Gateway's future remains uncertain.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper/Credit: Prime Minister's Office

The Canadian government's decision Tuesday to approve the $7 billion Northern Gateway pipeline from the tar sands of Alberta to the coast of British Columbia does not guarantee that the pipeline will be built in the end—or that Prime Minister Stephen Harper will find it any easier to advance his Conservative party's energy agenda, which also includes getting the Keystone XL pipeline approved in the United States.

Politically, Canada's Northern Gateway debate has eerie parallels with the U.S. debate over the Keystone—but with some of the roles reversed.

In Washington, Republicans who strongly favor the Keystone have been pressuring vulnerable Senate Democrats from fossil-fuel or swing states to support legislation that would approve the pipeline without waiting for President Obama to weigh in. If enough of them abandon the president, the Senate could vote to ram the pipeline through. (A committee vote is set for June 18.) 

In Canada, it's those who oppose the Northern Gateway who are putting pressure on Conservatives from British Columbia, threatening to campaign against them on the hot-button issue as the project proceeds. That could put Harper's majority at risk in the next national elections.

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Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway project would carry 525,000 barrels a day of tar sands crude to Canada's Pacific coast. TransCanada's Keystone would carry up to 800,000 barrels a day of Alberta's bitumen crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Both pipelines, as well as others being proposed to carry more tar sands crude to world markets, are critical for the oil industry's plans to increase production. Delays in building them are one factor behind the industry's latest, slightly less bullish forecast for future growth.

The Enbridge pipeline is especially unpopular along the coast of British Columbia, where crude oil tanker traffic would meander through sensitive waters into the Pacific's shipping lanes. 

A recent poll in the province found that 47 percent of respondents would be less likely to support a local Conservative candidate if the Harper government approved the pipeline. Only 11 percent said they were more likely to support the Conservatives if the pipeline got a green light. It wouldn't matter to 29 percent and the rest were unsure.

Even among Conservative voters, 19 percent said the pipeline's approval would make them less likely to support the party's candidate, while 24 percent said it would make their support more likely. Among Liberal and NDP voters, 57 and 74 percent, respectively, said it would make them even less likely to support a Conservative candidate. Among Greens, 64 percent would be less likely. Those who refused to identify their party split fairly closely on the question. 

This is a troubling calculus for the 21 Conservatives in B.C.'s delegation in the federal Parliament—and for Harper, who is as strong a proponent of the Northern Gateway project as he is of the KXL. Environmentalists have mounted a campaign to target those 21 members of the House of Commons over the pipeline. 

Harper has shown no inclination to rein in growth in the tar sands, or to temper his hostility to cracking down on global warming emissions. He made that clear recently in a joint appearance with his Australian counterpart, where the two argued against any climate-change measures that they said would do too much economic harm. 

His approval of Enbridge's project was conditioned on the company's meeting 209 conditions, mainly involving safety and the environment, set by a review board in December. But those are not insurmountable.

"Today constitutes another step in the process," said the decision. "Moving forward, the proponent must demonstrate to the independent regulator, the NEB, how it will meet the 209 conditions. It will also have to apply for regulatory permits and authorizations from federal and provincial governments. In addition, consultations with Aboriginal communities are required under many of the 209 conditions that have been established and as part of the process for regulatory authorizations and permits. The proponent clearly has more work to do in order to fulfill the public commitment it has made to engage with Aboriginal groups and local communities along the route."

Opposition politicians have been excoriating the Conservatives for their willingness to accept the proposal.

Taunting the B.C. Conservatives during question time in the House of Commons a few days before the decision's announcement, Nathan Cullen, a leader of the opposition in the House who has been vocal in opposing the pipeline, said: "politically it is a nightmare for a tired, arrogant, out-of-date government who just can't listen to those who put them here."

George Hoberg, a professor of environmental and natural resource policy at the University of British Columbia, said in an interview that Harper's decision would hurt him politically in British Columbia, where he said "an extremely well organized and effective environmental movement know what they are doing with respect to campaigns against politicians."

In a blog entry describing the political terrain on the eve of the decision, Hoberg wrote: "This conflict over a pipeline continues to manifest the struggle over the definition of Canada moving through the 21st century."

The pro-pipeline arguments were summed up in a public statement signed by a group of politicians and business leaders.

"It is critical that Canada open up new markets so that taxpayers get full value for our energy resources and that our natural resources find a way to those markets as quickly as possible," the declaration says.

Tuesday's conditional approval is far from the final word. Some of Canada's aboriginal tribes, or First Nations, have said they would not allow the project to cross their lands. Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia, while not flat-out opposed, has set conditions of her own for provincial approval, which have not been met. They include demands for advanced spill response programs, and a fair share of the pipeline's revenues.

Other challengers will argue in court, where their lawsuits have already been filed, that the extended federal review process was conducted improperly. The National Energy Board, in concluding that the project was in the national interest, counted the pipeline's benefits to the oil industry—higher prices for tar sands crude, and therefore a strengthening economy in the tar sands region—but refused to consider the associated costs, specifically the greenhouse gas emissions and climate change repercussions of tar sands production to feed the pipeline.

"This exclusion of the project's contributions to increased atmospheric emissions undermines Canada's formal international commitments" on climate change, a group of 300 scholars opposed to the pipeline wrote in an open letter to Harper.

"The oil sands sector is already Canada's fastest-growing source of carbon pollution, yet there are no federal regulations to limit that growth," said Erin Flanagan, an oil sands analyst at the Pembina Institute, a Calgary think tank. "We are very concerned about Cabinet's decision to approve a project that will allow oilsands development—and its associated carbon pollution—to grow faster at a time when industry and regulators are failing to manage the impacts and risks of current production.

Opponents are also organizing a citizens' initiative, petitioning for a ballot referendum—an approach that might not prevail under complicated local rules, but that would mobilize B.C voters against the Conservatives. 

"This is an issue of democracy," said Will Horter, executive director of Dogwood Initiative, B.C.'s largest nonpartisan organizing network, before the decision was announced. "The democratic majority of British Columbians agree with First Nations and share the same values. Our communities will work together to defeat this pipeline, be it in the courts or at the ballot box."

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